Friday, January 27, 2012

Reflections on TEDxBroadway

As a member of the audience for TEDxBroadway on Monday, I was eager to hear the diverse roster of speakers tackle the question: “What’s the Best that Broadway can be Twenty Years from Now?” For the uninitiated, TEDx events are individually organized conference events based on the TED model of spreading “ideas worth sharing.” Although The New Victory is technically considered an Off-Broadway theater (because it has less than 500 seats), our location makes us very much a part of the vibrant Times Square theater scene. Plus, what could be more important to the future of Broadway than “building the audiences of tomorrow, today,” which is how I often think of the New Victory’s mission. Here are just a few snippets from the conference and my own reflections on them.

A sampling of the theater professionals at TEDxBroadway
Jordan Roth of Jujamcyn Theaters spoke on how Broadway needs to create original work (whether based on source material or not) and celebrate what’s unique about the live experience. In order to remain relevant to young audiences who are growing up with more screens and digital entertainment options than ever before, live theater needs to focus on what it can deliver that no other entertainment medium can.

Regarding original work, I thought about the variety of shows that we present here at The New Victory for kids of a lot of different age groups. Curating a range of high quality, original productions for young people is always a challenge. Our Director of Programming scours the globe looking for the right shows to bring to our stages, and many of them come from Australia, Europe, and the UK. One of my hopes for the future is that more US artists and production companies will make funding, creating, and touring original, sophisticated and challenging work for kids a priority.

Commerce and culture researcher Patricia Martin talked about kids communicating at a “higher frequency” today and our need to adapt in order to cut through all the noise. By now, everyone realizes the importance of gaining a familiarity, vocabulary and comfortability with social media platforms, but I think a lot of arts organizations and brands still forget that once you’re there, you need to be real. Kids are super intuitive, and they are getting wise to marketing tricks at a younger and younger age. Like us, they know if you’re trying to “sell” them and they don’t like it. Remember little Riley who was tired of companies pushing pink toys to girls? Keeping live performance relevant to a digital generation is certainly an ongoing challenge, but if digital screens onstage or audience interaction or Tweet seats make sense for a show, great, but if not, don’t force it. Kids can immediately tell when someone is trying too hard to be cool.

Meeting Wrinkle after White
Meeting Cotton after White
Martin went on to say that despite all the technology, young people yearn for real human connection, and they believe what they can feel. If we want young audiences to believe that theater is still valuable and relevant, we need to get them into our theaters so they can feel it for themselves. Lucky for us, there is something irreplaceable about being in the same room with talent or art. Just think about the mobs that throng a Justin Bieber appearance or the stage door after a Hugh Jackman show. Breathing the same air and sharing the same space with something that you love is as magical in the digital age as it was before, and this doesn’t just apply to tween heartthrobs and movie stars. I’ve seen kids waiting in line to meet the performers after a New Victory show who are as excited and expectant as kids waiting to meet Santa Claus or the President himself. I believe that if kids are exposed to the arts at a young age and experience firsthand the thrill of a shared live performance, they’ll get what makes it great. So, another hope of mine is that the first time a kid sees a show, it’s not just a good experience, but a really great one - great enough to get them hooked and wanting more.

My favorite speaker of the day was Vincent Gassetto, Principal of M.S. 343 in the Bronx, and I know I wasn’t alone, since he was showered with the most applause. I couldn’t have been more encouraged by his interest in partnering with the theater community to expose his students to the experience of live shows and the different types of work in the industry. He invited and challenged Broadway to collaborate with schools to fill the void left by arts education cuts. This is exactly what The New Victory does so well, but we are painfully aware that the demand for our services far exceeds the supply. We have waiting lists for our school matinee performances and always max out the number of Schools we partner with each season.

Principal Gassetto acknowledged that putting his entire school on buses and driving down to Times Square to see Spiderman on matinee day was a lot of work, but he stressed that it was absolutely worth it. And judging from the reactions of his students, it made a huge impression. My third hope for the future is that every school kid will get a chance to experience great live theater - by the third grade. When I first had this thought, I was just referring to NYC kids, but actually, I mean EVERY kid. I know that’s a lot of kids and a lot of tickets, but it’s my vision of 2032, so why not dream big?

Lilaia Kairis is the Director of Digital Services. She is responsible for strengthening customer relations at The New 42nd Street through the use of enterprise software, internet strategy and other digital technologies. A member of the staff since 2000, prior roles at The New 42 have included Project Manager for the organization's Tessitura implementation and its subsequent website integration and Director of Member Services in the Ticket Services department. A graduate of Rutgers University, Lilaia also worked for many years at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ, where she served in several capacities, including Sales and Promotions Manager and Assistant Director of Marketing. Her trending topics include: babies who won’t sleep, hypoallergenic cats, and homemade lasagna. @lilaia 

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